‘Perfect storm’ will cause B.C. food prices to rise

Challenges faced by B.C. farmers this summer aren’t unique and could have significant impacts on province’s food-supply system.

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Emily-anne King is bracing for her monthly grocery bill to rise — by $10,000.

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The vice-president and co-founder of Backpack Buddies, a B.C. charity that provides a backpack of food to 4,000 school kids facing food insecurity each week, has been warned by suppliers that food prices are rising.

“Three-out-of-four of our major supplies have indicated we’re going to see massive increases,” she said Thursday. “We’re expecting to pay $10,000 more in food expenses per month, and we’ve been told it could go even higher.”

The increases range from a five per cent jump on oatmeal, to a 38 per cent leap on cans of beans and pasta.

Many of the reasons for the price increases are global in nature, including the COVID-19 pandemic, challenging weather across the Northern Hemisphere and supply-chain issues.

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But the causes can also be seen much closer to home — in Fraser Valley fields where parched corn grew to half its normal height, in Okanagan orchards as fruit crops cooked on the branch and in scorched Interior forests where beef cows typically range.

B.C. is accustomed to a “robust” food-supply chain, meaning that if a local crop like raspberries fails, we can expect to find berries from California or South America in store instead.

“But this year, the entire West is under siege by drought,” said Tom Baumann, an agriculture expert and professor emeritus at the University of the Fraser Valley. “On top of that, you have the pandemic, which has had a grave impact on the whole system.”

Baumann listed several other factors that contribute to rising food prices, including a shortage of farm workers, increased transportation costs and feed shortages for livestock. “None of it is good for the supply chain,” he said.

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Rising food prices come as no surprise to Sylvain Charlebois, lead author of Canada’s Food Price Report, which has accurately predicted price increases the last several years.

“Food connects many elements,” said the food policy researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “Unfortunately this year we have a bit of a perfect storm.”

Charlebois said B.C. can expect prices to be “rocky for awhile,” with a reprieve possible in spring 2022.

Similarly, when asked if there was a silver lining to a challenging summer, Baumann pointed to the next growing season.

“As we say in the farm industry, there’s always next year,” he said.

But it remains to be seen if all B.C. agriculture producers will be able to bounce back.

B.C. Cattlemen’s Association general manager Kevin Boon estimated the province has lost about 3.5 million hectares of land to forest fires in the last five years.

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“That’s a lot of land,” he said. “While we call them forest fires, they take our forage as well.”

In some cases, land that was lost in 2017 was burned again this summer.

“After a fire you’ve got to give the grass a chance to recover. To see it hit again, just as the cattle were getting back onto the land, is hard. Guys lost all their grass, but they still have cattle to feed.”

Typically, B.C. ranchers would make up the lost feed by buying from the Prairie provinces, said Boon, but drought conditions across Western Canada and the U.S. mean there’s not much feed to be had, and what feed there is, will be pricey.

“If the feed just isn’t there, ranchers are faced with selling cattle,” he said.

That might mean a strong supply of B.C. beef for a few months, but when breeding stock enters the food chain, it isn’t easily or quickly replaced. The B.C. beef industry could struggle three-to-five years down the road, said Boon, along with consumers who may pay more for meat.

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